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Combating Terrorism
by Prof. William Thomson

September 12, 2001-Yesterday's horrible events in New York and Washington, DC require all of us to express collective disbelief at the appalling loss of innocent human life and to express our heartfelt condolences to the victims, their families and their friends. Such brutal slaughter must be unconditionally condemned whenever and wherever it occurs. No cause, no matter how nobly perceived by its followers, can justify such wanton destruction of innocent people.

Today, as we inevitably begin the healing process and the search for answers and solutions, there is much speculation about who the perpetrators of these acts might be, and what form an appropriate retaliation might take. This morning's New York Times states that "the best defense against terrorism is good, timely intelligence", and other media, government and military officials suggest a wide range of retaliatory options, ranging from overwhelming military strikes to Draconian suspensions of our most cherished freedoms and liberties--freedoms and liberties which define the unique American experience.

In order to understand yesterday's events and to prevent their reoccurrence, I believe that we need to consider two ideas. First, I think we must accept the fact that there is not, and can never be, a 100% foolproof intelligence or military remedy for terrorist acts. I would even go so far as to say that unless certain basic changes are made in our political and economic outlook as Americans, such acts will inevitably reoccur, and they will become increasing deadly. Just as we today look at the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center as "mild" in comparison to yesterday's events, I believe that with the increased miniaturization of nuclear capability and the widespread availability of chemical and biological toxins, some day we will be faced with events of overwhelmingly tragic dimensions. Just as there is no way to stop people from committing murder if they are willing to give up their lives, there can also not be any way to guarantee our collective safety from individuals or groups who are willing to sacrifice their lives in a terrorist attack.

The second consideration is ask a question which has been completely absent in the analysis of yesterday's tragedy - why would a person or group commit such a heinous act? Why would the United States be chosen, and why would the particular targets of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon be picked? Whoever is found to be the perpetrators of yesterday's terrorism, it is certain that they will be demonized and characterized as somehow being outside the pale of human understanding. And if we demonize sufficiently, we might be able to justify our need for revenge, but we will have missed a crucial opportunity for understanding, and for gaining the insight and wisdom that are the only tools with which we might avoid future attacks.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist for a despicable act, I would like to provide some possibilities for understanding the roots of this tragedy:

1. We Americans, comprising some 4% of the world’s population, consume approximately 40% of its resources. We appear to assume that the resources found in other parts of the world are somehow our birthright. Imagine how this is experienced in Third World countries, many of whom have been the recipient of United States military attacks.

2. We maintain this consumption, in large part, because we have the most powerful military in the world, and since WW II we have not hesitated to use it for political and/or economic gain in places like China (1945-46), Korea (1950-53), China (1950-53), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1958), Cuba (1959-60), Guatemala (1960), Congo (1964), Peru (1965), Laos (1964-73), Vietnam (1961-73), Cambodia (1969-70), Guatemala (1967-69), Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), El Salvador (1980s), Nicaragua (1980s), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991-present), Sudan (1998), Afghanistan (1998) and Yugoslavia (1999).

We have bombed each of these countries in turn, and in NO case did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result. Through our weapons and/or proxies, innocent civilians of Indonesia, East Timor, Chile, Nicaragua and Palestine have also been victims of the United States. Is it any wonder that the level of hatred of the United States is so high? Former President Jimmy Carter stated, "We have only to go to Lebanon, to Syria, to Jordan, to witness firsthand the intense hatred among many people for the United States, because we bombed and shelled and unmercifully killed totally innocent villagers, women and children and farmers and housewives, in those villages around Beirut...as a result, we have become a kind of Satan in the minds of those who are deeply resentful. That is what precipitated the taking of hostages and that is what has precipitated some terrorist attacks." (New York Times—3/26/89)

3. Forty-nine percent of our income tax dollar goes for present and past military-related activities. On April 16, 1953, former President Dwight Eisenhower noted that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." For the cost of a Stealth bomber, we could put an additional teacher or social worker in every middle and high school in the United States. The cost of the proposed missile defense shield would add several more. Which of these options would add most to our national security?

In short, I believe that we are paying a terrible price for a very shortsided and egocentric American political and economic worldview, and unless we change this worldview, I am concerned that yesterday's tragedy will be only a down payment on the retribution yet to come.

 

(Bill Thomson is a clinical psychologist and a faculty member at the University of Michigan/Dearborn, where he teaches a course in Nonviolence and Violence.)

William J. (Bill) Thomson, Ph.D. >> (wthomson@umich.edu)

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